Rebirth of the Capitol Skyline Hotel
Published: May 2009
By Michael Gross
A hip hotel group has restored a sixties landmark in Washington, D.C. <b>Michael Gross</b> inspects what might be the world's <i>best</i> Best Western
Everyone knows the Capitol Skyline Hotel," my cabbie says as we speed out of Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National. It's not meant as a compliment. "You don't want to walk around," the driver continues, darkly. "And you'll have to call for a cab if you want to go anywhere. Taxis don't cruise around there."
After a two-mile drive on I-395, we swoop off the highway, descend into the neighborhood, and, seconds later, pull up under the hotel's porte cochère, which juts out from the façade like the tail fin of some early-sixties luxury sedan. More portents are apparent: a sign outside warns guests that the front doors are locked at night, and a uniformed guard prowls the lobby. Across the street is a homeless shelter and a public park that has been a haven for miscreants.
But a closer look tells a vastly different story.
When Steve Rubell and his partner, Ian Schrager, opened Studio 54 in New York in 1977, recession-battered Manhattan, like the southwestern section of Washington today, was considered an urban jungle. In its brief but bright original incarnation, the A-list discotheque signaled the city's rebirth. Rubell and Schrager went on to open two Manhattan hotels—Morgans and the Royalton—triggering the birth of the boutique hotel.
After Rubell died, in 1989, his brother, Don, a gynecologist, and Don's children—Jennifer and Jason Rubell—inherited his half of those properties. They sold their interest to Schrager and joined forces with Mera Rubell, Don's wife and the children's mother, who had started her career as a developer in 1992 on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach's South Beach when it was a run-down neighborhood full of neglected architectural gems. With Jennifer in charge of aesthetic conceptualization, Don overseeing the daily operating numbers, Jason taking on finance and construction, and Mera functioning as a self-professed "workhorse," the Rubells opened three boutique hotels of their own, in south Florida. Launched in the mid nineties, the Albion and the Greenview were a major factor in South Beach's revival, and the Beach House brought cool to the otherwise staid area of Bal Harbour. Steve would have been proud.
As the family was mulling over further expansion, a real estate broker showed them a photo of Washington, D.C.'s Capitol Skyline, which was part of the Best Western chain. When it first opened in the early sixties, the 203-room Skyline—five blocks from the U.S. Capitol—reflected that exuberant, optimistic time. The building, which looks like a space-age honeycomb, was designed by Morris Lapidus, the Russian immigrant whose first architectural commission had been the kitschy Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach. (Lapidus best expressed his philosophy in the title of his autobiography: Too Much Is Never Enough.) The Green Bar—with its emerald vinyl walls and padded black vinyl bar—was a Senate hangout. The booths and snaking counter of its Congressional Coffee Shop attracted staffers from the Hill. The Capitol is so close to the hotel that you could almost touch it from your window; half the guest rooms face it (others overlook the pool). And the Skyline's unglamorous address and underground parking garage made it perfect for the sort of governmental liaisons that now enliven the scandal sheets, but back then rustled only bedsheets.
The economy and the national mood soured in the seventies, and so did southwest D.C. But the Skyline's just-off-the-highway location, low rates, proximity to the Capitol, and original family ownership kept the hotel going. It is also these qualities that have come to define the Best Western, the brand founded in 1946 as an informal referral system for its members, who in those days were all independent motel operators. Best Westerns, along with Holiday Inns and a handful of other chains, became the McDonald's of lodgings, offering clean rooms, comfortable beds, a sense of familiarity, and the promise of value—typically within sight of one of the highways that connected Americans with their land of plenty. Today, with more than 4,000 outposts worldwide, Best Western offers its member-owners a reservations system, comprehensive marketing, brand identity, a quality-assurance program, design services, and staff training, all paid for by fees and dues from the participating hotels.
The Rubells fell for the building's contradictory design: Colonial-style interiors wrapped in a Modernist package, with TV screen-style windows set in a façade of brute concrete speckled with marble chips. Besides, a mid-Atlantic property would give seasonal balance to their growing hotel portfolio. "It was a time of imperial expansion," Jennifer says. "This was our first step out of Miami." With Polo Ralph Lauren-trained decorator Scott Sanders, she and Mera sought to create another fashionable property. They had no intention of opening a Best Western—or even an inexpensive hotel. But when the seller failed to show at the scheduled closing, the Rubells ended up in court for years, during which time the economy cratered, boutique empires like Ian Schrager's shuddered, and, finally, the events of September 11 kicked a hospitality business that was already down.
The more the Rubells considered the situation after closing on the property in August 2002, the more strongly they felt that it would be wrong to rethink the hotel. "It was envisioned as a Best Western," Jennifer says. What could be more American than coming to the nation's capital in the family gas-guzzler and staying right along the roadside in a motor hotel with a giant outdoor swimming pool?(Which, it should be added, was never exactly an easy thing to find in the center of the District.)
"We come from the side of the business where people expect luxury and are very spoiled," Jennifer says. Lapidus had designed for a much wider clientele, and suddenly, reaching out to those people seemed not just a challenge but smart business as well. "So we kept all the elements," Mera says. "Everything is new, but it's in the spirit of Morris Lapidus." The family retained the union staff, many of whom had worked there for decades, and even kept the Best Western association.
Boutique hotels "are an antiquated idea, you know?" Jennifer says. "We've become more interested in a broad audience. No intimidating design. No connotations of elitism or exclusivity."
Last year the Rubells went to a Best Western convention, where they met other owners and took a crash course in the company's values. "That convention taught us that to do a kitsch-cool take on Best Western would be obnoxious," Jennifer says. "We went there thinking everything would be in quotation marks—the tackiest floral bedspreads—and were actually very moved by the experience, seeing people doing something sincerely."
Instead of creating a meta-Best Western, the Rubells aimed for a better Best Western. They used only approved vendors and materials—Thomasville American Heritage bedroom sets, washable vinyl wallpaper, and Italian porcelain tile and granite counters. "Basically," Sanders says, "these rooms will never wear out. They're indestructible." The Rubells seem to be part of a trend: Holiday Inn is now revamping its image to refer to its iconic past.
But they also "pushed the edge of the Best Western aesthetic," Jennifer says, asking the vendors to come up with designs that highlighted the Rubells' vision. "We wanted the mother of all Best Westerns," Mera says. They decided that everything within the rooms would be in the blue, red, and gold of the chain's flag. Well-known collectors on the contemporary art scene, the Rubells wanted art that would reflect both their concept for the hotel and their personal taste. Hoping to find great presidential portraits, they headed for the Smithsonian, a few minutes away. There were none, but in the gift shop Mera found faux-parchment reproductions of the Constitution and posters featuring every U.S. president.
It couldn't be less hip. And that's the point. "Hip is dumb," Jennifer says. "Sure, there are customers who will object to this hotel, but ninety-five percent of the world will love it."
Best Western certainly does. The Rubells prove, says Carolyn Marion, spokesperson for the brand, that "Best Western is not one-size-fits-all. They're responding to consumer demand for standardization of service, but not standardizing the hotel itself."
When I was at the Skyline in late September, the renovation of the property was nearly complete—finishing touches were being put on the two ballrooms, the elevators, and some staircases and basement areas. The scalloped-roof outdoor barbecue area was shut for the winter, and the restaurant, the 19th Green, seemed forlorn—no diners, only a fellow in a trucker hat watching football on the new flat-screen TV over the bar. Since room service isn't availablehere, I had the buffet breakfast in the coffee shop—now called the Skyline Diner and decorated with caramel vinyl booths and venetian blinds. It was perfectly adequate and, at $9.95, quite inexpensive. But the dinner menu—pasta dishes and sandwiches, "Hawaiian tuna," "chicken ameretto [sic]," and steak served three ways—could benefit from some freshening up. Fortunately, the garrulous Mr. Panich, the Capitol Skyline's unofficial cabdriver for 20 years, was waiting in the circular drive and took me to the Palm, only 10 minutes away in central Washington. Interestingly, even cabdrivers are talking about the new arrivals from South Beach. "I hear this nice lady just bought the hotel," Panich says. "New offices are going up and it's getting better. She has good timing."
Indeed, the Capitol Skyline is being heralded as the harbinger of its neighborhood's rebirth. That homeless shelter, which occupies a wing of the Millennium Arts Center, is about to be relocated. High-rise apartments renting for $1,200 a month—a few blocks from the Hill—have opened. And rumors are flying that the federal government is about to build a massive office complex across the street.
"Can I tell you?" Mera says. "This is better than South Beach. We had homeless squatters living in the Albion and the Greenview when we took them over."
BEST WESTERN CAPITOL SKYLINE, 10 I St. SW, Washington, D.C.; 800/458-7500 or 202/488-7500; www.bestwestern.com; doubles from $119.
MICHAEL GROSS is a T+L contributing editor.